S.C. nuke failure should lead to more solar, not less

Growth in South Carolina's solar industry has allowed the state to lower energy costs and reduce air pollution while creating jobs. (© Alice Keeney)

With the $9 billion failure of a nuclear plant construction still consuming the South Carolina legislature, backers of carbon-free energy are bracing for another setback: a possible restriction on expansion of solar power.

A 2014 South Carolina law that eased solar restrictions predictably boosted solar installations and created thousands of jobs. But it has been so successful that the state is running up against a legislative cap on solar energy installations urged into law by utilities who feared profit loss. Once the cap is reached, South Carolina’s booming solar industry could wilt, costing thousands of jobs.

“Our utilities are still billing customers for a $9 billion hole in the ground that will never power a single light bulb,” said SELC attorney Blan Holman, speaking of the nuclear units at V.C. Summer that collapsed in the contractor’s bankruptcy after years of cost overruns and oversight failures. “And now the utilities want to cut off another opportunity for homes and businesses to save money on pollution-free solar energy. That makes absolutely no sense.”

Here’s how reporter Sammy Fretwell of The State explained the solar cap that was negotiated into the 2014 law:

State utilities, fearful a wholesale move to solar power could cut into their profits, negotiated a limit on the expansion of solar energy. That included a 2 percent cap on a power company’s peak average demand for energy over five years.

The cutback would affect SCE&G and Duke Energy customers because the utilities are regulated by the South Carolina Public Services Commission. It would not affect Santee Cooper customers.

Eddy Moore, the energy issues director for the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League told The State: “If we hit the cap, it could be devastating – and we are not just crying wolf.”

Even though South Carolina has some of the country’s most consistently sunny days, solar energy production lagged before the 2014 law. According to The State, there were 300 rooftop solar installations in 2014, the year the law was passed. But after the favorable legislation, that number jumped to 4,000 rooftop systems.

“The complete and distressingly expensive failure of the V.C. Summer plant should be a rallying cry for solar energy,” Holman said. “Solar helps customers save money, and those savings could offset the nuclear tax they’re still paying to cover the failed plant. It is imperative the legislature remove the cap on solar installations and give South Carolinians more choice when it comes to managing their energy use and their budgets.”